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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chernobyl Haunts 15 Years On

KIEV — Fifteen years after the world's worst nuclear disaster, people across much of the former Soviet Union lit candles and offered prayers Thursday for those killed and sickened by the explosion at Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

The April 26, 1986, explosion and fire sent a radioactive cloud over much of Europe and contaminated large areas in then-Soviet Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.

The Ukrainian government says more than 4,000 of those who took part in the hasty and poorly organized Soviet cleanup effort have died, and that more than 70,000 Ukrainians were fully disabled by the disaster.

In all, 7 million people in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine are estimated to suffer physical or psychological effects of radiation related to the Chernobyl catastrophe.

Hundreds of people attended an overnight memorial service at a small Kiev chapel that was built to commemorate the disaster. They held burning candles as priests read out prayers in memory of the dead.

A bell rang shortly after 1 a.m., exactly the same time as the reactor exploded. Some in the crowd broke into tears.

One woman described how the building in which she worked at Chernobyl grew dark and shook. From a window, she saw "a glow, like haze in the summer" over the reactor.

A similar service was held in Slavutych, a town of Chernobyl workers close to the plant.

"The Chernobyl nuclear power plant has been closed down but human calamities and problems born by the disaster remain," President Leonid Kuchma said during a visit Thursday to Slavutych and the plant. "For 15 years, Ukraine has born the cross of Chernobyl practically alone, we had to do everything on our own in unfavorable economic conditions."

Pope John Paul II prayed for the Chernobyl victims. A group of Ukrainian children brought to Italy through charitable organizations attended his service in the Vatican.

"All of our thoughts return to April 26, 1986, when in the middle of the night a tremendous explosion occurred in the nuclear plant," John Paul said.

In Moscow, hundreds of relatives and friends of firefighters who died after the Chernobyl cleanup gathered at the Mitinskoye Cemetery to pay tribute to their loved ones, who were buried in sealed boxes to prevent radiation leaks.

"We have come here for 15 years and will come with my husband as long as we have our health," said Valentyna Lopatiuk, who came from Ukraine and whose late son was a firefighter in Chernobyl.

Thousands of Belarussians turned out for an evening rally in Minsk to commemorate the tragedy.

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan appealed for people to remember the needs of those who are still suffering from the effects of Chernobyl.

"Together, we must extend a helping hand to our fellow human beings, and show that we are not indifferent to their plight," Annan said in a statement released Wednesday.

Boris Chekalin, the head of the radiation service at Russia's Kursk nuclear power plant, took part in the Chernobyl cleanup. He told state television about the first days of the operation.

"When I arrived at Chernobyl, I saw a large black fire with clouds, an impression that will stay with me my whole life," he said.

Chekalin said he never takes off his hat, even on overcast days, because he has to avoid the most minor sun rays to prevent irritating burns on his face and arms — a constant reminder of his radiation exposure during three days at Chernobyl.

Following the 1986 explosion, other reactors at the plant continued operating until it was halted for good in December under intense international pressure.

At the plant itself, workers remain busy. They monitor the now-idle reactors and are building a heating plant and facilities for nuclear waste disposal. They are also involved in a $758 million internationally funded project to make the plant environmentally safe.